The Rape of Wessex

Sexual Violence & Industrialization in Tess of the D’Urbervilles

Kara Witow

Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles is set in the fictional county of Wessex at a time when the Industrial Revolution was beginning to encroach upon and threaten the rural agrarian way of life. The period during the Industrial Revolution was marked by momentous economic and social change. While the Industrial Revolution increased the standard of living for many, those at the lowest levels of society suffered a dramatic decrease in their standard of living. Mechanization of agriculture eliminated many small-scale farms creating a mass migration of people from rural to urban centres. In Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Hardy chronicles the transformation of an ancient landscape into a barren wasteland. The rape of Tess by Alec D’Urberville mirrors the devastation caused by the industrialization of the English landscape. In addition, he shows that when man works against nature, both are destroyed. Hardy achieves this by first drawing Tess as a “new-sprung child of nature” (273), and then illustrating the effects of the changing landscape on her physical and mental states. Moreover, Hardy ties the attempts of Alec and Angel to master and alter Tess to her final ruin as well as their own, likening this to man’s attempts to exert control over nature. The story of Tess serves as a timely warning for current generations who continue to witness man’s exploitation of the natural world.

Hardy illustrates the young Tess Durbeyfield as “a fresh and virginal daughter of Nature” (142); indeed, she is the personification of Nature. He does this by aligning Tess’s beauty, purity, and fertility with the rich earth of Talbothays and the untouched and “primaeval” (40) forests of Blackmoor. Like the ancient forests, Tess is an archetype of nature, but also of woman; Angel “seemed to discern in [Tess] something that was familiar, something which carried him back into a joyous and unforeseeing past” (142). Hardy shows that Tess is not only “an integral part of the scene” (101), but that she also “intensif[ies] natural processes around her till they seemed a part of her own story” (101); in this sense, Tess appears to be called to Talbothays by the “stir of germination [that] was almost audible in the buds; it moved her, as it moved the wild animals, and made her passionate to go” (118). At Talbothays, Tess “[feels] akin to the landscape” (122) and is in sync with the natural rhythms of the dairy: “the seasons in [her] moods, morning and evening, night and noon” (140). Hardy alludes to nature’s incompatibility with the modern world through the railway which “stretched out its steam feeler to this point three or four times a day, touched the native existences, and then quickly withdrew its feeler again, as if what it touched had been uncongenial” (220). Talbothays provides sanctuary for Tess and for nature, sheltering them from the effects of industry.

The “steam feeler” (220) of the train alludes to the idea that, like nature, Tess is vulnerable to the exploits of men. Both Alec and Angel seek to master Tess and alter her true form just as the masters of the Industrial Revolution seek to transform nature for their own selfish purposes. Hardy directly aligns Alec with the forces of industrialism through his family name of Stoke. Alec also refers to himself in relation to Tess as a “servant of corruption” who becomes entangled in “the pollutions of the world” (377). In contrast to descriptions of her vitality and fertility, Alec is “dust and ashes” (97) to Tess. Further, Tess often views him in the light of a “mechanically lit” (90) “red coal of a cigar” (75), coal being the fuel of industry. Alec’s repeated attempts to master Tess are rebuffed; however, he finally succeeds in her subjugation. Like the deepening gap between rich and poor that is the result of industrialization, Tess’s rape by Alec opens an “immeasurable social chasm” (87) leaving a “coarse path” (86) for her to follow. That path includes the birth of “Sorrow the Undesired – that intrusive creature” (113). The sickly product of Tess’s rape, Sorrow serves as Hardy’s warning that man’s domination over nature will produce ill-begotten effects. Although a “gift of shameless Nature” (113) Sorrow is unable to thrive and grow on his own.

Nature has a restorative effect when left on its own or in partnership with man as it is at Talbothays, and in the natural environment of the dairy Tess, “transplanted to a deeper soil” (152), falls in love with Angel Clare. Angel’s desire for Tess is born out of her communion with nature; however, despite his love for her, he still seeks to alter her. “Clare’s intelligence [is] fresh from a contrasting society” (139) and he seeks to imbue Tess with his manners and education. Tess recognizes that Angel “did not milk cows because he was obliged to milk cows, but because he was learning how to be a rich and prosperous dairyman” (147). Like the dairy, Tess represents an opportunity for Angel to create an idyllic lifestyle that includes “independence without the sacrifice of what he valued even more than a competency – intellectual liberty” (138). In Tess and Angel’s relationship, Hardy demonstrates that even good intentions can be injurious, for when Angel is incapable of accepting Tess as she is, he discards her. It is not until Angel reaches Brazil that he is able to understand much of the hardship Tess has had to endure, and the value of life outside of intellectual learning. In his reflective questioning of what makes mankind moral, Hardy marks Angel as “an appreciative voice” (135).

However, Angel’s enlightenment comes too late for Tess. Hardy illustrates man’s destruction of nature through the physical and mental transformation of Tess during her time at Groby’s farm; here, struggling to remain independent in the face of Alec’s continued attempts to exert power over her, she is further exploited. Like the “starve-acre” (334) landscape, Tess, daughter of nature, has been stripped of her natural beauty by the unwanted attention of her “master,” Farmer Groby, and the harsh working conditions at the farm. Both Tess and the landscape are described as dull and Hardy uses corporeal imagery to describe the field further aligning Tess with landscape: “the whole field was in colour a desolate drab; it was a complexion without features, as if a face, from chin to brow, should be only an expanse of skin” (334). Tess and the landscape are no longer described in rich colour, but in dull monotones further signifying depletion: Tess’s serge is gray and her skirt is “whitey-brown rough wrapper . . . every thread of that old attire has become faded and thin” (329). While Hardy describes man as “a personality afield” (104), separated from nature by machinery, he describes woman as “a portion of the field” (104) to be used for man’s gain. The machinery at Groby’s takes on life-like qualities issuing a “despotic demand upon the endurance of [the worker’s] muscles and nerves” (380). While the machinery is elevated to human status, the workers are reduced to mechanical parts for whom “there was no respite; for, as the drum never stopped, the man who fed it could not stop, and [Tess], who had to supply the man with untied sheaves, could not stop either” (382). However, unlike a machine, Tess is pushed to the point of mental and physical exhaustion: “Mentally she remained in utter stagnation, a condition which the mechanical occupation rather fostered than checked” (320). Tess has become “scarcely percipient, almost inorganic” (329).

At the start of Tess’s story, when considering her looming destruction, Hardy’s narrator asks “whether at the acme and summit of the human progress these anachronisms will become corrected by a finer intuition, a closer interaction of the social machinery than that which now jolts us round and along?” (46) In view of the effects of the Industrial Revolution, the question asked is whether human progress achieved by interference in natural processes will reap the desired effects, and if so, at what cost? Tess’s murdering of Alec, Angel’s illness obtained during his time in Brazil, and the execution of Tess seem to indicate that neither man nor nature benefit from this exploitation; however, Hardy appears to remain optimistic; his assertion that “women [and therefore Nature] do as a rule live through such humiliations, and regain their spirits, and again look about them with an interested eye” (125) points toward regeneration. Hardy also suggests that there is hope for renewal when Angel, who has come to understand the virtue of man’s relationship with nature, takes guardianship of Liza-Lu, “the spiritualized image of Tess” (462).

Tess of the D’Urbervilles is Thomas Hardy’s documentation of the transformation that occurred in rural England during the Industrial Revolution. He draws Tess as the personification of Nature and in turn likens her exploitation to man’s destruction of nature. Hardy shows that in exploiting Nature, both man and environment are destroyed. Hardy asks whether this is a cost we are willing to pay and remains hopeful that man can achieve insight into his actions.

Work Cited
Hardy, Thomas. Tess of the D’Urbervilles. 1891. New York: Knopf, 2006. Print.

Kara Witow is a Grande Prairie Regional College student and mother of two young boys who constantly challenge her to view the world from different perspectives. Her love of writing was nourished by her father, who provided her with support, inspiration, and pages of red ink. She will never have another editor like him.

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2 responses to “The Rape of Wessex

  1. Pingback: Issue 2 Summer/Fall 2014 | The Waggle Magazine

  2. Pingback: Issue 2 Summer/Fall 2014 | The Waggle Magazine

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